No, the Great Central Main Line is not an adequate alternative to HS2

London Marylebone. Image: Oxyman/Wikimedia Commons.

On 3 August, the Spectator published an article arguing that there was a superior alternative to building HS2: reopening the Great Central Main Line.

That line stretched from London Marylebone, through Rugby, Leicester, and Nottingham, to Sheffield and Manchester. It was closed under the Beeching cuts, on the grounds that it was largely a duplicate of the Midland Main Line, but much of the trackbed is still extant.

Reviving this route perhaps would cost less to build than HS2: some parts of it are still in mainline use. But it remains an inferior option, nonetheless.

A map of the Great Central network in 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

For a start, the Great Central route would miss out two of the four key HS2 cities, Leeds and Birmingham. It would thus not fulfil one of the key purposes of HS2 – relieving the West Coast Main Line. Instead it would increase capacity on the Midland Main Line, probably the least important of the three north-south mainlines – something reflected in the fact that it still hasn't been electrified. (Cheers, Chris. No, we're not going to stop mentioning you, even though you've lost your job. Sorry.)

Also, why go to the trouble of building a new high-speed railway that misses out the UK's second city (Birmingham) and one of its fastest-growing (Leeds)? Instead, we get Rugby, Leicester, Nottingham, and Sheffield. These places are important – and desperately need better transport links – but it seems ridiculous to suggest that they are more important than Leeds and Birmingham.

HS2 will be faster, too. Whilst trains tend to dominate the market share for fast journeys when the journey itself takes less than 2hr30, only a few services – between London and Manchester, for example – are already fast enough to ensure a dominant market share. There is immense potential for onward journeys to Newcastle, Carlisle, Glasgow, and Edinburgh – places from which train travel to London and Birmingham does take longer than 2hr30. (Indeed, it takes longer to get to Birmingham from Newcastle than it does to get to London.)

HS2 services, using the HS2-only route to Manchester or Leeds and then moving onto classic sections of the rail network, will deliver real journey time reductions to these places, making rail travel more attractive for people living in the north-east, north-west, and Scotland. If we're building a whole new line, we might as well build it properly.

The Great Central would also still require expensive tunnelling beneath Nottingham and Leicester. In Leicester, almost all of the trackbed has been built on; in Nottingham, it's been taken over by trams. In Sheffield, things are simpler, but the route is also safeguarded for potential tram extensions. In this way, the Great Central route could in fact damage local transport.

To add to this, connections within cities will be awkward. Most of the big city stations on the Great Central route – Sheffield Victoria, Nottingham Victoria, Leicester Central, Rugby Central – have been closed and no longer exist. Transfers from these stations to others will be necessary anyway.


So is the Great Central route really a simpler alternative? The sections from London-Aylesbury and Manchester-Hadfield are also congested, and expensive and disruptive capacity improvements would be vital, probably including two additional tracks alongside these sections for intercity services. This alone would cost billions.

When you also consider that the original terminus, London Marylebone, has no spare capacity – In fact, no London terminus has any real spare capacity – and that land prices in London are astronomical, a London terminus for the new Great Central Main Line will cost more billions.

The final problem with the Great Central route is a less obvious one. The British public has something of an obsession with heritage railways: it's one of those strangely British things, like drinking tea, keeping vast numbers of pets, or constantly talking about the weather. The Great Central railway is one such heritage railway, with two sections of track still in use – one from Leicester to Loughborough, and another from just north of Loughborough to just south of Nottingham.

A major project has been underway for some years to reconnect the two halves, and the railway is somewhat unique as the only double-track heritage railway in the world operating. This project, with its 18 miles of track, would have to be torn apart. Think the British public are angry at the destruction of ancient woodland? Just wait until you break up a major heritage railway.

The Great Central line may still has a role to play – much of it could and should be reopened. Reopening the line from Rugby to London, for example, would be fairly simple, bar station improvements at both ends, and could increase capacity on the most congested section of the WCML – an easy win.

But it's not an adequate replacement for HS2, and it wouldn't end up being much cheaper either, with extensive tunnelling and compensation schemes needed anyway. HS2 is not perfect, and more stations are needed – but it remains the better option for the UK. The Great Central route is no real alternative.

 
 
 
 

Community-powered policies should be at the top of Westminster’s to do list

A generic election picture. Image: Getty.

Over the past five decades, political and economic power has become increasingly concentrated in the UK’s capital. Communities feel ignored or alienated by a politics that feels distant and unrepresentative of their daily experiences.

Since the EU referendum result it has become something of a cliché to talk about how to respond to the sense of powerlessness felt by too many people. The foundations of our economy have been shifted by Brexit, technology and deindustrialisation – and these have shone a light on a growing divergence in views and values across geographies and generations. They are both a symptom and cause of the breakdown of the ties that traditionally brought people together.

As the country goes through seismic changes in its outlook, politics and economy, it is clear that a new way of doing politics is needed. Empowering people to take control over the things that affect their daily lives cannot be done from the top down.

Last week, the Co-operative Party launched our policy platform for the General Election – the ideas and priorities we hope to see at the top of the next Parliament’s to do list. We have been the voice for co-operative values and principles in the places where decisions are made and laws are made. As co-operators, we believe that the principles that lie behind successful co‑operatives – democratic control by customers and workers, and a fair share of the wealth we create together – ought to extend to the wider economy and our society. As Labour’s sister party, we campaign for a government that puts these shared values into practice.

Our policy platform has community power at its heart, because the co-operative movement, founded on shop floors and factory production lines, knows that power should flow from the bottom up. Today, this principle holds strong – decisions are best made by the people impacted the most by them, and services work best when the service users have a voice. Our policy platform is clear: this means shifting power from Whitehall to local government, but it also means looking beyond the town hall. Co-operative approaches are about placing power directly in the hands of people and communities.


There are many great examples of Co-operative councillors and local communities taking the lead on this. Co-operative councils like Oldham and Plymouth have pioneered new working relationships with residents, underpinned by a genuine commitment to working with communities rather than merely doing things to them.

Building a fairer future is, by definition, a bottom-up endeavour. Oldham, Plymouth and examples like the Elephant Project in Greater Manchester, where people with experience of disadvantage are involved in decision-making, or buses in Witney run by Co-operative councillors and the local community – are the building blocks of creating a better politics and a fairer economy.

This thread runs through our work over the last few years on community wealth building too – keeping wealth circulating in local economies through growing the local co-operative sector. Worker-owned businesses thriving at the expense of global corporate giants and private outsourcers. Assets owned by communities – from pubs to post offices to rooftop solar panels.

And it runs through our work in Westminster too – with Co-operative MPs and peers calling for parents, not private business, to own and run nurseries; for the stewards of our countryside to be farmers rather than big landowners; and for workers to have a stake in their workplaces and a share of the profit.

Far from being ignored, as suggested in last week’s article on community power, our work has never been more relevant and our co-operative voice is louder than ever.

Anna Birley is policy offer at the Co-operative party.